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Chapter 05

Making a Way

African Americans fought slavery and inequality in ways large and small, from open rebellion to subtle acts of resistance. Using connections—family, neighbors, worship services, and formal political conventions—African Americans shared news, created networks, and developed strategies for “making a way out of no way.” State and local governments responded with “black codes” and “slave codes,” race-based laws that attempted to restrict Black lives. African American persistence and grassroots organizing still serve as a model for social activists today.

Matted and framed runaway slave broadside with reward information. Black printed text on off white paper. The top is captioned with "100 Dolls. Reward."

A matted and framed broadside advertising a reward for the return of a fugitive enslaved man, Richard Low. The broadside is printed in black text on off-white paper. In large text at the top is [100 Dolls. REWARD.] followed by smaller text reading [My Negro man named Dick, commonly called "Richard Low," ran away from my residence in Upper Marlborough, Prince George's county, on the morning of the 18th of July instant. Dick is about 28 years of age, tall and stout built, perfectly black, has a full suit of har, and has lost one of his upper front teeth. He has a wife living with Mr. Saml. B. Anderson, nar the Depot, in Washington City. He is a blacksmith by trade, and is doubtless now in Washington City.]. At bottom right is the name of the poster: [JAMES B. BELT.] and at bottom center is [Upper Marlborough, July 19th 1853.].

Section VISeizing Freedom

Harriet Tubman: Seizing Freedom

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman’s Lace Shawl

Known as a slight and delicate girl, Araminta Ross grew up to change her name and become Harriet Tubman (ca. 1822–1913), one of the nation’s most courageous antislavery activists. Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tubman refused to accept enslavement for herself or others. As a young woman, she ran for freedom, making her way up Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Philadelphia. She returned to the South nine times to guide others to freedom. Over her lifetime, she helped free hundreds of enslaved people. England’s Queen Victoria gave Tubman this shawl around 1897 in recognition of her work.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman’s Lace Shawl

The Underground Railroad

Map of Underground Railroad Routes

The Underground Railroad was a secret network built upon local knowledge and resources. Black people had long relied upon one another’s skills, courage, and strategic insights to escape from enslavement. By the antebellum period, growing interracial efforts helped to secure freedom for a number of enslaved people and provided a coalition for the antislavery movement.

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad, but a path to freedom for self-liberation. Fugitive enslaved people moved along routes that included safe houses, leading north to Canada or south to Mexico and the Caribbean.

This map shows the general direction of movement from slave states to free territory, including terrestrial and maritime networks closely monitored by slave catchers. Conductors, like Harriet Tubman, risked their lives to emancipate African Americans throughout the South. Despite numerous precautions and the help from abolitionists, danger was always present.

Map of Underground Railroad Routes

There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other . . . I should fight for my liberty.

Harriet Tubman to Sarah Bradford, 1886

Harriet Tubman's Hymnal

Harriet Tubman’s Hymnal

A fiercely religious woman, Tubman spoke of visions and dreams that helped provide a moral compass throughout her life. The wear-and-tear on this hymnal suggests that she must have loved it and used it quite frequently.

Harriet Tubman’s Hymnal

Runaway Broadside

Against great odds, enslaved African Americans escaped. They ran to family, to friends, or across borders to freedom. A runaway risked brutal punishment and retribution against loved ones left behind.

Broadside offering reward for Dick (Richard Low), 1853

Broadside offering reward for George, Jefferson, Esther, and Amanda, 1840

I could be called a ‘conductor’ on the underground railway, only we didn’t call it that . . . we just knew there was a lot of slaves always a-wantin’ to get free, and I had to help ‘em.

Arnold Gragston, 1938

A Mother's Sacrifice

The Modern Medea, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1867

Margaret Garner was born enslaved on Maplewood Plantation in Boone County, Kentucky. After giving birth to three children fathered by her enslaver, Margaret escaped to Ohio with her children and husband, Robert.

They crossed the Ohio River on foot from Kentucky, stopping at a relative’s house in Cincinnati before continuing the journey to Canada. However, what was supposed to be a rest stop became a standoff when federal marshals accosted the home. As Robert defended his family with just a pistol, Margaret would make a choice that still remains deeply polarizing and hauntingly powerful. Deciding that death was better than a life of enslavement, Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter, Mary, and attempted to kill her other children and herself.

Margaret Garner’s story inspired this painting and Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved.

The Modern Medea, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1867

Risking Death for Freedom

The Hunted Slave, 1861

Many enslaved people ran away, but few made it to freedom. The path was too treacherous, and the cost too dear. This painting entitled “The Hunted Slave” was painted by Richard Ansdell in 1861. It depicts an enslaved couple escaping to freedom. They fight for their freedom and their lives as the husband beats back slave hunting hounds.

The Hunted Slave, 1861